There’s a good reason we imagine hell as a place of fire. Fire is terrifying, indiscriminately brutal and its effects are devastating.
I had a scary experience with fire as a teenage girl in a farming district of Western Australia.
It all happened in a split second. One moment I was fighting a fire and the next I was engulfed in choking smoke, so disoriented I didn’t know which way to run. I was terrified I could be burnt.
You can’t grow up in rural Australia without some experience of bushfire.
Whenever there is a bushfire now, as there is in New South Wales this week, I always flash back to that moment.
It lasted less than a minute and then the wind changed, and the smoke cleared.
In hindsight, I was never in any mortal danger, but that’s not what it felt like at the time.
I vividly remember the feel of my heart beating in my ears, unable to breathe, unable to think as fear took over.
That bushfire had already ripped across one farm and some national park, and was threatening the home of our neighbor, who was away at the time. It was the worst combination of hot, dry and windy that day.
I was fighting a grass fire in a paddock on the flank of the fire under the supervision of others, while my Mum and Dad operated the fire unit on their truck in where the real danger was taking place.
Whenever there was a fire in these circumstances, other farmers would rush in to help with their fire fighting appliances – water tanks and pumps on the back of trucks and four-wheel-drives.
I recalled this incident when I was in Canberra as the horror bushfires hit in 2003, sadly taking the lives of four people and destroying 500 homes, and again while living in Melbourne when 173 were tragically killed and 2,029 homes lost in the Black Saturday fires of 2009.
In both cases to different degrees, an eerie twilight descended and in the middle of the day, the darkened skies glowed with reds and greys that in any other circumstance might seem beautiful.
In Melbourne, I could smell the smoke but in Canberra half-burned leaves and ash rained down on my street as it did in many parts of the city.
It was how you might imagine the apocalypse.
I also reported on countless fires during my time as a journalist, from single homes to bushfires of all sizes.
There’s a smell that hangs on you when the Australian bush burns. It’s that musty smell of smoke that gets into your clothes, clings to your car and belongings, infiltrates every pore.
It can hang around for weeks. One whiff will take you straight back to the sight of flames flaring out of control, the roar of the wind as it’s sucked into the fire-front, the choking feel of smoke on your lungs.
The thing about fire is that it’s so all-consuming. The recovery is slow and difficult. Many things can never be recovered or replaced.
In the fire on our neighbour’s farm, no one suffered any significant injuries, but the experience of that terror has stayed with me. Thankfully, we were able to stop it within about 100 metres of their house, about one kilometre from our own.
Many people in New South Wales have not been so lucky in recent days as fire storms rip through the Blue Mountains and near Newcastle.
It’s part of being Australian to know about bushfires and their fury, and it’s also in our national psyche to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people who are affected.
Let’s hope our brave fire fighters, who work so hard in such difficult conditions, can get these fires out before any more homes or lives are lost.
Then we can get on with what we can do so well as a community: help support these people to pick up the pieces and rebuild their homes and lives.